With the world in our pockets and Alexa tapping into our every mood, some speculate that George Orwell’s “Big Brother” is here. If he is, he seems to be focused on babysitting the kids. After all, youngsters live in a state of constant monitoring and connection. (And if I’m being radically honest, their parents do, too).
Apocalyptic musings aside, kids are definitely stressed by a flood of never-ending check-ins and an overwhelming feeling that somewhere, somehow, they’re missing out. Fear of missing out—FOMO, if you’re 2016 hip—is real, constant, and quantifiable.
A study from Carleton and McGill universities indicated that young college students felt FOMO most acutely later at night and as the weekend approached. Not surprisingly, FOMO affected their choices, including forgoing sleep and studying lest they fall behind socially—never mind about those deadline-driven exams or labs. But we can’t blame their choices on youth: Nielsen finds that adults spend nearly half their days online, too.
Many parents wish they could put the genie back in the bottle. Yeah, not happening. Pew Research revealed that among 18- to 34-year-olds, 90% had smartphones. Besides, we all know that having instant access to information offers myriad positives: education, amusement, entertainment.
Years ago, if I had a question about a topic, I had to hit the books or find and contact an expert to help. Now, I have my choice of experts. I can watch a 30-minute YouTube video about pretty much whatever I want to know. For kids, this unprecedented access to information has changed their capabilities. Whether they want to figure out a cool way to give their room a face-lift for under $50 or find a little help with a sticky physics problem at 10:29 p.m., they can.
Therein lies in the conundrum facing all parents. Yes, kids feel anxiety and pressure at being privy to others’ highlight reels 24/7. Yes, they can receive addictive dopamine rushes every time their phones go off, per Harvard studies. Yes, their self-esteem can take a nasty hit due to peer comparison anxiety. But at the same time, being more informed or in contact with loving people can be a huge asset.
So what’s the answer for those of us trying to help young people navigate an incredibly high-tech world and all its stressors? Instead of forcing kids to go cold turkey or creating dictatorial rules, parents can help them by adopting a few measures:
1. Set specific, measurable parameters. We have the ability to choose our digital experience. Period. As parents, that goes for your children, too. From apps to websites, you can stay in control of your children’s viewing by limiting device time and setting parental controls like specific site blocking. Moms and dads of older teens, teach your children to take advantage of options such as muting offensive tweets or accounts. Talking openly as a family about how to make technology work for you, not own you, makes sense in our connected world.
2. Less hovering. More modeling positive behaviors. Eventually, kids will become adults. If they haven’t developed the ability to self-discipline by then, they’ll have trouble staying on task in college or the workplace. Establish household routines while your kids are still home (without becoming a helicopter). A good way for kids to learn moderation? Mimicry. If you don’t jump online at every opportunity, your kids will be less likely to do so. If you set nonnegotiable “no screen time” habits, your kids will develop the discipline to say “no” themselves. Bonus: The ability to disconnect without prompting is good for lowering everyone’s stress levels.
3. Game digital consumption. Kids are incentive-driven—use that to your advantage. Reduce the time suck of constant device use by turning it into a game. Try offering a reward to whichever child spends the least time on their devices every week. Let me be clear: The goal here shouldn’t be to get to zero use. The world’s gone digital, and some careers (and classes) do require a thorough understanding of tech. When the median pay for computer programmers is more than $84,000 annually, moms and dads need to balance their desire to chuck smartphones out the window with figuring out how to help kids make responsible choices.
4. Encourage anonymity. Being online is best done anonymously, particularly for kids. And with so many data scandals in the news—remember Cambridge Analytica?—more platforms valuing anonymity will no doubt crop up. Children should be taught to travel the internet as anonymous explorers, finding favorite subreddits and watching from the shadows. Not every conversation needs a comment. The rewards of lurking can be a balanced point of view and a discerning, independently thinking brain. Parents can help kids discover nonjudgmental communities that uplift them.
5. Support “head in the cloud” thinking. The cloud is a great place to do work, maintain notes, store photos, and place anything valuable. From Evernote to Google Docs, countless platforms enable the next generation to store their digital stuff. Kids deserve to know how beneficial and practical the cloud can be. Sit down with your children and share ways to make better use of cloud-based services and options wisely and securely.
At the end of the day, kids will still be kids. They’ll make dumb mistakes and play like there’s no tomorrow. The difference for Generation Z is that they have to be more responsible on the digital playground. Parents who steer their kids away from the biggest pitfalls brought on by digitization will usher in a new breed of digital natives who can actually put down the phone, forget about FOMO, and give Big Brother the boot.